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AFRICAN AMERICAN MYSTERY WRITERS: A HISTORICAL AND THEMATIC STUDY
by Frankie Y. Bailey
McFarland & Co., November 2008
271 pages
$35.00
ISBN: 0786433396


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In this comprehensive study of African American mystery writers by University of Albany Criminal Justice Professor Frankie Y Bailey, issues of crime and justice stand paramount. While these concepts have always played a role in the genre of mystery writing, for African American writers in particular, these concepts are laden with historical significance.

In this volume, shortlisted for Edgar, Anthony, and Macavity awards for non-fiction, Bailey traces this influence on the genre from the earliest writings by African Americans in the United States. It soon becomes clear that the slave narratives and newspaper stories (those earliest African American writings) will come to bear even on modern day mystery writers. While mystery writers generally tend to embrace the renegade protagonist who searches for justice amidst a frequently shaky legal system, for African American mystery writers, the inherently unjust system of racism (dating back to slavery) continues to exert a unique thrust on the voices that emerge, even in the 21st century.

Once readers are given a historical overlook, Bailey moves on to issues of how African American mystery writers approach their work, with chapters covering the sleuths and their worlds; place, time, and community; victims and offenders; and doing social justice. The last section of the book is dedicated to readers, writers, and mystery scholars, and this is a very interesting section indeed.

One wishes that Bailey had done more with her research on mystery readers, but considering this pilot study was the first of its kind, she has at least laid down a challenge for others to follow. Where she does provide comprehensive detail on her subject matter is in the back of her book, where readers can find long lists of African American mystery writers and their work, topics extrapolated from their writings, and literary criticism that has preceded Bailey’s own.

Anyone hoping to explore the topic or read original sources are well provided for in this book. Frankie Bailey's source material alone is a valuable tool, both for future researchers and lovers of the mystery genre, who will no doubt run across more than one author's name whose work is worth exploring.

While the book is a slow read in the early chapters as Bailey explores the historical background to her topic, as the volume approaches midpoint (modern writers and their subject matter), things begin to pick up to a more novel-like pace. She moves seamlessly from section to section, and by the time the reader approaches the last, resource-laden finale, it's clear that this nonfiction study of African American mystery writers will remain an interesting, important book for many years to come.

Reviewed by Christine Zibas, May 2009

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